Karen hated killing people.
She followed the dark blue convertible, the photograph of the man she was to kill pasted to the windshield. That was him, no doubt about it. A young man was driving the car. She hadn't seen him clearly, but he seemed to be attractive. It was a shame she had to kill him.
*Why did I have to get into this job?*
No time for regrets. Traffic was as light as it was going to get, here in the middle of Utoland. It was time to do it.
She sped up, pulling even with with car. The driver was better than she figured-Ž he evaded her Point, and its sidesaws, longer than most. But eventually she popped his time, and he went over the side, with her target in the car.
That should have finished them. In Galactor, however, you didn't get anywhere by taking needless risks. She ejected her tires and took off. The Death Rose was already held between her lips-Ž the cellofilm part of her mask covered her lips with a tough if thin material, so it didn't hurt. Karen slid the windshield back, and tossed the rose out into the turbulent waters around the Utoland Island.
The filters in her mask prevented the brilliance of the explosion from hurting her eyes, but they stung for other reasons. Acknowledging the tears would only make them come harder, so she ignored them. *When you wear the mask, you are not human. Your heart is zero. Your feelings are zero. Nothing matters but service to Galactor.* She remembered her teachers' words, thought the litany over and over as she angled her Point back to Devil Star.
At any given time, only five Devil Stars could use Points, there being only five of them on board; however, the ship could fit several dozen individuals easily. When Berg Katse and the male sector had Devil Star, this lounge went unoccupied; a sign on the door proclaimed, "WOMEN ONLY! Men enter at risk of your manhood!" Karen, being a woman, went in.
The crew of the Devil Star today were 12 women, all of them members of the elite assassin squad named for the ship. Five of them were in the lobby, smoking and drinking cheap wine, when Karen came in.
"Hey! Kid! How'd it go?" Red asked, and Karen smiled wanly. She pulled off her mask and flopped down on the nearest unoccupied sofa.
"Wasn't hard," Karen said, declining the pack of cigarettes Red was handing her. All she needed was a nicotine habit.
"Wasn't it your first?" Bitch's nickname referred to dogs, not attitude. She was loyal and tenacious, and her bite was worse than her bark.
Karen shrugged. "I've done lots of training runs."
"Not the same," Bitch said sympathetically. "Hey! Party up, people! The Kid's blooded now!"
The other women raised glasses in a toast. "First blood, she's a woman!" Egghead cheered, tossing back her drink. Egghead was always making dumb plays on words.
"There we go," Red said. "The road to womanhood: first monthly blood, first mission blood. First dick's got to be in there too. You got dicked before, right Kid?"
Karen couldn't control her blush. "No," she said. "My boyfriend and I're waiting. We're gonna get married."
"Bad sign," Red said. "They get you to marry them, that's it-- hausfrau for life. You get stuck with a bunch of screaming brats and he gets all the fun. You oughta break it off. Can't ever trust a man who says he loves you. All's they ever want's your pussy."
Egghead nodded soberly. "Men are pricks. That's all there is to it."
"But they're such yummy pricks," Bitch said, and grinned.
Granny spoke up. "Never gonna change her mind, girls. Young love rots women's brains." At 50, Granny was terribly old for a Galactor, older even than Karen's mother, the Devil Star, would have been if she'd been alive.
Karen got herself a pastry and a small glass of wine. She didn't feel like there was anything to celebrate. Looking around the room, she saw her co-workers as tawdry women without futures, wearing too much makeup and with short hair permed straight so that they didn't have to take too much care of it and so it wouldn't get messed up by the wigs they always wore. Fat Red, shrill Bitch, silent Mouse, skinny Granny, hyper Egghead-- and herself, the Kid. Never first names. Officially they weren't even supposed to have nicknames, but the numbers changed too often to use them, and who wanted to go by a number anyway? For instance, by a quirk of fate, Karen had been assigned the number 2. One would almost think the Captain had a sense of humor. The name Devil Star 1 had been permanently reserved for Karen's mother; had it amused the Captain to make the daughter number 2? Did anything amuse the Captain, other than other people's deaths?
Karen didn't belong here, among these women, in this organization. She belonged at home, on BC Island, with Alan... But the next time she returned home, it would be different, because she would be different. Next time she returned, it would be as a full-fledged Galactor.
Which was the last thing in the world she wanted to be.
Karen got up and decided to hit the showers. The others acknowledged her departure with "Bye!" and casual waves.They knew she wasn't really one of them. It wasn't her age; Mouse was only a year older, but on the rare occasions that Mouse entered the conversation at all they accepted her, because Mouse talked about the same things they did, mostly men. Karen wasn't interested in talking about men. There was only one man for her, and her relationship with him was a precious flower, far too dear to her to expose to these filthy-mouthed women who thought of sex as a mere release and love as nothing but a lust-induced illusion. Karen knew better. She knew what love was.
As she showered, she thought about Alan-- gentle and somewhat shy, religious and tender and totally unlike the men of Galactor. Galactor men's attitude toward women could be summed up in what a Blackbird had once said to Karen-- "You're not doing your job right. Don't you know the reason for you Devil Stars being in this organization is the men's need for sexual release? That's what you're here for, to sleep with us." Unfortunately, it was an attitude shared by most Devil Stars, despite the fact that their fighting skills and status as an elite meant there was only one man whose orders they had to obey, that being Berg Katse. Karen couldn't understand how skilled women with status could still think of themselves primarily as sex objects, and like it that way.
She believed that love meant something, that it was possible for a man and a woman to have a truly giving, warm relationship, and Alan proved it. He was on the verge of taking his vows when he dropped out of the seminary, left his vocation behind because he couldn't live without her.
Nor could she live without him. Unfortunately, she didn't have the option of leaving her profession behind. Alan knew that, knew she was a terrorist and requird to kill and that she would be killed if she tried to leave. He hated Galactor passionately, but for her he bent the rules. She had no choice but to be a killer. A deeply religious man, he was torn up inside by that fact, Karen knew, but she also knew that he dreamed of a day when Galactor would no longer demand her services, when she could live at home and care for the children they would both have...
Karen knew better. Alan's religious beliefs prohibited birth control and sex before marriage, but Karen was trying desperately to wear him down. If she married him, if she bore his children, he and they would become bound to Galactor, even as he was. And she refused to raise a child as she had been raised, refused to drag another generation down into Galactor as her mother had dragged her...
Sometimes Rita Cabrini had been a considerate, loving mother. She had played with Karen sometimes, and taught her the arts of disguise at 12 years old, and taken her to amusement parks and such. Other times, she had been nasty, snarling at Karen or even hitting her. Usually those times came just before or after a mission.
Karen had idolized her mother, and had grown up knowing that someday she would become a Devil Star like Rita. Way back then, that had been something to look forward to. She knew all kinds of stories from the early days of the 'Stars that most others didn't, such as the details of the war between Tai Nakamoto and Berg Katse and how the Captain, then Tai's second- in-command, had decided to betray Tai for Katse and swung the tide of the fight. At a very early age, Rita had taught Karen the less bloody skills she would need for her future life, and Karen had learned them eagerly-- and yet--
There were three things that caused Karen to search for a way out, even when she was in training. Alan was one of them, and discovering that what she really wanted to do was race cars was another. But the third was her memories of Rita; Rita getting drunk after a mission, and hitting her; Rita dropping everything to answer a summons from the Captain, no matter how important what she'd been doing had been to Karen. Rita at her coldest and cruelest had been that way because of Galactor.
And now Karen had learned that she didn't like Galactor; it wasn't glamorous, it was murderous and bloody and all too often boring, sitting around in lounges that smelled of cheap liquor while frowsy, filthy women talked about sex. It was not pleasant to end another human being's life, not at all. Despite what the others had said, Karen saw no difference between those she'd killed on her training runs and those she'd killed tonight. Just because it was an official mission didn't make it more important, or better, or significantly different in any way. When Karen thought about the goal she was working toward, she felt sick at heart.
But those who tried to leave were killed. Her mother had gone on many, many missions to eliminate "traitors"-- people who tried to desert from Galactor. Karen knew the danger far too well to ever hope to leave.
She just hoped she could avoid dragging Alan down with her.
As she left the showers, a soft pager went on: "Devil Star 2, report to the control center."
It couldn't be another mission? Karen had had her heart set on racing tomorrow... Grimly she pulled on her hideous mask, with the cellophane-like film that clung to the skin around her lips and chin and turned her lower face green, and the dull blonde wig, and headed upstairs.
In the control center, four others-- Red, Bitch, Egghead and Mouse, all in costume-- stood against the wall, while the Captain sat in the front chair, her back turned to them, brushing her hair.
"Yes, ma'am?" Karen said.
"Are you aware that your attempt on Nambu was unsuccessful?"
No, Karen hadn't known. "I-- I don't understand. I drove them off the bridge, and I dropped the Death Rose. How could they have survived?"
"Nambu is a surprisingly resourceful man. By now, he's reached his country house safely-- but we can't let that get in our way. We are gathered here to assassinate him."
She couldn't get defensive. If she got defensive, the Captain would attack her for the failure. She gathered up her courage and took the offensive. "But how can we kill him when he's at his country house? We don't know what kind of security system he's got."
"Of course. We have to lure him out."
The Captain stood. "I've taken care of that already. Soon Dr. Nambu and the Science Ninja Team will be nothing more than an unpleasant memory. Devil Star 5!"
"Yes, ma'am!" It was Egghead who bowed.
"You and I have work to do tonight. The rest of you, see to the maintenance of your Points. Tonight is free time, but I want you here at 8. Understand?" The others nodded. "Let's go, Devil Star 5."
The Captain was an extraordinarily intimidating woman. At the moment she was dressed in a dark purple bodysuit with pink piping, her hair cut very short all around her head, except on the left side where it was easily waist length. Her eyes were utterly cold, penetrating, almost drugged- seeming in their intensity, and she rarely blinked. At the moment, mostly due to the hairstyle, she looked rather hideous, especially since she was too skinny to carry off wearing a skin-tight bodysuit very well, but nobody was about to tell her that. Years ago, she used to come to Karen's house for dinner sometimes, but had never paid any attention to Karen herself-- it was Rita she'd come to see. Karen hoped the Captain didn't remember her from those days-- coming to the Captain's personal attention was always a bad idea.
Once the Captain was gone, everyone relaxed. "A free night, huh?" Red said, pulling off her mask as she headed out of the control center. "I know how I'm gonna spend *mine*..."
Everyone but Karen laughed. As quickly as possible, Karen drifted away from the group. It was 11 PM-- if she got six hours' sleep, she'd have two hours to race tomorrow. Not as much as she'd hoped, but she'd set so much store on getting to race that she was damned if she'd let anyone stop her from doing it.
Out on the track, she tried to cast her troubles away, for the short time she had.
The only thing that had ever been attractive about Galactor was the excitement. Karen enjoyed living on the edge. Racing, chasing people (but not to kill them), fighting (but not to the death)-- she was an excitement junkie. Today, as she circled the track, she was able to put off her apprehensions for a while-- until the clock said it was almost time to go back. Then all the resentment and anger at Galactor and her mother burst forth. She sped up, pushing herself and her car to their limits.
*No escape-- no future-- nothing but killing and death and darkness-- and never happiness with Alan, never never never...*
When she hit a rock, going at 210 mph, and slewed madly, terror overwhelmed her. Her training made her leap free of the car, at a crazy angle-- but her last thought, as the ground rushed up at her, was *Maybe it's better this way...*
She blinked open her eyes. She was in a strange car.
"Good, you're awake," a pleasant, deep male voice said.
Karen looked at him. He was extremely attractive, and that on top of the near-death experience froze her tongue.
"Where do you live? I'll take you home."
"I need to go to work," she said distantly. "Um. What happened?"
"You crashed your car on the racetrack," he said. He had long red- brown hair framing a character-filled, rugged face, with gorgeous blue eyes. Not pretty, but terribly compelling, that face. "I picked you up just before it blew."
"Then-- you saved my life. Thank you."
"No problem," he said casually. "You go to the racetrack often?"
"Whenever I get upset," she said. "It makes me feel better."
"Yeah, me too. Best way I know to calm myself down. How long have you been at it?"
"Um..." She thought. "I learned to drive when I was 14, but I wasn't confident enough to really enjoy it until about 2 years ago. You?"
"That's pretty much what it was like for me," he said. "I started driving around 14, too, and driving fast-- well, it didn't take me long to get confident enough." He grinned. "You want something to eat?"
"I-- oh! What time is it?"
He glanced at a clock on the dashboard. "Quarter to eight."
"Quarter to--!! I'm late! Can you bring me to the Brye Building?"
"Sure, if that's where you want to go," the young man said. "But can't you just call in sick? I mean, you might be injured from your crash and all."
"I'm fine. And my employers-- are very unforgiving. Please, just bring me there."
"Okay." He swung into the proper lane, merging with ingoing Utoland commuter traffic. "By the way, what's your name?"
"Oh, right. Karen. Karen Cabrini."
"Mine's Joe. You Italian?"
"Sicilian. BC Island."
"Hell!" He stared at her, surprised. "What a small world it is! I'm from the Island myself."
"No kidding?" He wasn't a Galactor, she felt sure. No Galactor would have gone out of his way to rescue her. But not everyone on the Island was a Galactor, after all. "When did you leave?"
"Oh, a long time ago... long time. 10 years back." He looked upset, brooding, so she changed the subject.
"Well, maybe we can talk over old times someday. Or, why don't we race each other sometime?"
"Yeah, that'd be great." He brightened visibly as they got off the topic of BC Island.
They pulled up in front of the building. She saw the Captain waiting, but this was important-- more important to her than Galactor was, at the moment, and she didn't know why. Why was it that she didn't want to let this young man walk out of her life without seeing him again? She was faithful to Alan, wasn't she? But... "Tomorrow, same time, same racetrack?" If today's mission succeeded, there wouldn't be any work tomorrow. And if it didn't, Karen would undoubtedly not have to worry about meeting anyone anymore.
"Sounds great. I'm not going to go easy on you."
"Wouldn't want you to." She got out of the car and headed up the stairs, to face the Captain.
The woman's eyes were wide, glazed-- well, it was no secret that she used uppers-- and her lips curved slightly in a half-smile that seemed to have nothing to do with the situation.
"I'm sorry I'm late just before a job," Karen said, bowing her head.
The Captain's expression changed without warning, suddenly twisting into a fury as her hand snapped across Karen's face with unexpected strength. Karen staggered back, then went into the building, hoping that the blow was the only punishment waiting for her.
Bitch was inside. "Where've you been?" she asked. "The Captain's furious!"
Karen put a hand to her face. "I know. Do I have time to get into costume?"
"Your costume's aboard the Star. Let's go!"
Devil Star was perched on the roof of the Brye building, camouflaged by ingenious screens set up outside. By punching the elevator button for top, then bottom, then top again in rapid succession, one could reach the roof and get on board. Karen asked, Bitch, "What do you know about the plan?"
Bitch took a dep breath. "Okay. The target's going to be on this train, see. The Captain's going on board with a bunch of men. We're supposed to use the Points and blow out the bridge. And fight the Science Ninja Team. I think."
*The Science Ninja Team!* Terror stabbed through Karen, and she went white. "Th-- the Science Ninja Team?"
"Yeah," Bitch said. "No Devil Star's gone up against them, yet. Gonna be interesting." She grinned lopsidedly.
They disembarked and got aboard Devil Star, and Karen ran for the change room. The slightly sick butterfly feeling fluttered in her stomach as they took off. She got her mask and wig on and headed for the control room.
No fooling around now; this was business. The four women waiting there already, waiting for a message, were all professional, reviewing a film of the Science Ninja Team in action. Karen took a seat and joined them. Her eyes flickered around the circle, looking at the others. Somehow, she'd stopped noticing how strange and fearful they all looked in their bizarre masks and costumes. It struck her once more. *These are the most highly trained assassins in Galactor,* Karen thought, *and I'm one of them.* She saw now how terrifying they must be to outsiders, these masked, expressionless women.
*And I'm one of them.*
The thought was disturbing, yet somehow heady. To take her mind off it, she she watched the film more carefully, taking note of her future opponents' strengths and weaknesses. One thing quickly came clear to her. Against the Swan, the Swallow, or the Owl, she had the remotest chance in hell of winning if she made no mistakes. Against the Eagle or the Condor, she didn't even have that much. And a battle with the Eagle might be a survivable experience-- she would lose, but she might not die. But a battle with the Condor would be fatal.
A grim sense of battle readiness suffused her. Karen did not plan to die. Life was hard, but the alternative was worse-- and she had a race tomorrow to look forward to, after all. She would do her job the best she knew how, harden her heart against the knowledge that she would be killing innocents, and make sure that, whatever else happened, it wasn't Karen Cabrini's blood that got spilled today.
By the time the summons came, other Devil Stars in the crew had piloted Devil Star near the bridge span between the islands. Karen and the others reported to the control center, as the intercom crackled with the Captain's voice.
"Our chance has arrived. I'll take care of Dr. Nambu. You lure the Science Ninja Team away. Remember the plan. If one part fails, forget about it and go on to the next step. And if you run out of time, you know what to do. Devil Star 2!"
"Yes, ma'am!" Karen stepped forward.
"You're not a full-fledged member of Galactor yet. But in order to protect Galactor's secrets, the child of a Galactor can never leave. This is your proving mission. Success will give you the right to full Galactor status. Use the techniques you learned from your mother to kill the Science Ninja Team! Your first mission failed. Do not fail your second chance."
The message ended. Red waved. "To the Points!"
Karen headed out to her own Point. It had begun, and likely not all of those that left the ship would return.
They flew over the train, out to the mountain trestle. This part, Karen was especially good at-- she'd trained a great deal more with blowing things up than killing people directly, unless it was with the roses Rita had used. Actually, even those blew up. But this way, she didn't have to see the faces of those she killed.
Each of them carried a bomb. Red had the connecting cord, which she tossed to all of them, as they laced it through their bombs, and Karen had the fuse. The difference between Devil Stars and most other Galactors, aside from their sex, was that Stars were trained for teamwork. In sync with each other, they climbed down the trestle and fastened the explosives, then climbed back up the trestle.
Karen caught Egghead's hand signal. *Trouble!* She saw the Swallow's buggy coming in at them. Well, give him something else to worry about. Karen set the fuse, tossed it over the side, and ran for her Point.
The five of them sped along the tracks, just skimming the surface. Suddenly, the Swan came down from the mountains on her motorcycle. Karen saw it in her rear view mirror, and put on a frantic burst of speed.
The intercom crackled. "This is Devil Star 10!" Mouse. "The Swan's on me-- I--"
"Mouse get off my tail!!" Egghead shrilled across the intercom.
"I can't-- I-- AIEE!!"
Egghead and Mouse's vehicles caught each other, spun off the bridge, and exploded.
*Egghead-- Mouse--* Karen hadn't been close to either of them, but seeing them die so suddenly was a shock. No one but the targets had died on her training runs... She put on full speed. Far behind them, on schedule, the trestle exploded.
"We're not going to fucking have time!" Red shrilled on the intercom.
Why were they so panicky about a possible mission abort? Karen thought they should be panicky about the Swan instead.
They were approaching the area they were supposed to blow, with the Swan-- and the train-- hot on their heels. "No choice!" Bitch shouted. "We're going to have to do it!"
"Do what?" Karen asked.
"Park on the bridge, Kid." Red's voice was edged with terror. "'Least my kid'll be taken care of, this way..."
"What are we doing?" Karen asked, suddenly catching their panic.
"We can't set the bombs, so we have to blow up our Points!" Red shouted. "Get ready, Kid-- the self-destruct is the red button!"
No way! Karen was in Galactor to preserve her life-- she was not going to sacrifice herself to the organization! "You're crazy! Why don't you abort?"
It was Bitch's voice that answered. "We're Galactor, Kid. All that matters is our duty to Galactor."
Karen hit the gas on her Point just as Red and Bitch exploded theirs.
Her heart slammed. The Swan and the Swallow were on the wrong side of the bridge from her, Devil Star was behind her, but she didn't want pickup, she wanted to go home, go home...
*They're dead. All of them. And they died for GALACTOR'S sake! WHY?*
But she'd survived. She had to hang onto that. Karen Cabrini was still alive, and could still hope for happiness...
There was someone blocking the tracks ahead of her.
It was the Condor.
*...a battle with the Condor would be fatal...*
Karen stood, lifting the top, reaching for her rose. She had to get him out of the way, had to kill him, had to--
--Why was she fooling herself? Did she really think she could pull off killing the Condor? What was she, *insane?* She closed the top and revved up to take off.
The blue-caped figure wasn't having any. He drew his gun, and, as she angled over his head, fired. Karen shrieked as a cable smashed through her window, burying itself in the dashboard. If her Point hadn't been turned at a sideways angle, it would have been her that the cable was buried in.
The dashboard sparked-- she was going down. She popped the top, and leapt free, holding her rose. So the Condor wouldn't let her go? She had been willing not to fight, she had only wanted peace, but he'd pushed it, and now Karen knew she was going to die.
*Why? Why can't the child of Galactor ever be free of Galactor? I was so looking forward to tomorrow's race...*
But she was going to try her damnedest to take her killer with her. Karen flung her rose down at the Condor as she fell. He flung a shuriken at her-- no, at it, slamming through her rose and whipping past her face, carrying the rose with it. It ripped her mask off and scored the side of her face. The wig, disarrayed by the loss of the mask, came off as Karen jerked her head in startlement, crying out. She landed on the tracks heavily, and looked up at her attacker, ready to dodge-- but he was staring.
*I'm what?* No time to wonder-- if he wasn't going to push the attack, she certainly wasn't. Karen turned and began to run for the edge of the tracks, where she could leap off and disappear in the mountains-- but a cable fired in front of her, causing her to trip and fall. "Wait!" the Condor shouted behind her.
Karen rolled to her feet-- and was hauled off them by a powerful grip. "Why are you a Galactor?" the Condor demanded. "I know you-- you're Karen! You're a racer! What are you doing in Galactor?"
*The Condor-- knows me? How??* Karen stared at him through his visor-- and suddenly, shockingly, recognized his face.
"J- Joe?" His grip on her relaxed somewhat. "The man who saved me, this morning-- that's you? The Condor? I-- I--" She twisted free of him, but a hysterical sob welled up in her throat, and she fell to her knees. This was too much. She couldn't handle it, not on top of everything else.
He grabbed her chin, twisting her head around to face him. *"Why are you a Galactor?"* he demanded again.
She sobbed brokenly, furiously. "Why do you care?" she snarled through the tears. "You kill us all anyway! You don't care if I wanted to be Galactor, if I had a choice, you don't care they'd have killed me if I left, oh no, oh no..." She covered her face in her hands. "Why can't a Galactor's child ever get free? All I want, I want to go home, back to the Island to be with Alan, that's all I want, to be free..."
"That's right," he said softly. "You said you came from BC Island." He let go of her and stepped away. "Stop crying. I'm not going to kill you. But I'm going to take you with me."
"Wh-what--" Karen took a deep breath. *I've got to stop crying. Such a baby. I'm a Devil Star now and there isn't any way out.* "What are you going to do with me?"
"Get you out of Galactor," the Condor-- Joe-- replied. "That's what you want, isn't it?"
"I can't--" Karen's eyes widened in terror. "My mother was a Galactor- - they'll never let me leave! They--"
"Girl-- Karen. Listen to me. You're dead to Galactor. Your car, plane, whatever that thing is-- it's wrecked. They're never going to get to you again. If you cooperate with us, you'll be free. My superiors are going to want to ask you a few questions, but that's all. We can set you up with a new identity-- not on the Island, I'm afraid, but somewhere-- and you'll be free. Do you want that?"
Did she want that! To be free-- but she could never return to the Island, to Alan, because they'd know. Galactor was everywhere on BC Island. They would know.
She was free, finally free, of Galactor-- but at the cost of her love.
Karen got to her feet, and looked at Joe. "Why did you let me live?"
"Got a problem with it?"
"No-- no, of course I don't! I just-- wanted to know. Why didn't you kill me?"
He looked at her for a long while, then turned away. "Because you're human," he finally said.
Before she could finally ask what that meant, he was talking to his bracelet. "G-2 to God Phoenix. Pick me up. I've got us a guest."
Karen stood on the trestle, looking up at the sky, as the wind blew through her short hair. The mask and wig that had fallen on the trestle blew away, into the mountains.